The NBA was without its full slate of stars for much of last season, as a number of the league’s best players missed extensive time. But the start of the 2022-23 season marks a fresh start and return to the court for those stars.
Marquee veterans such as Kawhi Leonard and John Wall, who are typically counted on to carry their respective teams, didn’t play in 2021-22 and their teams failed to make the playoffs as a result. Leonard’s return and the addition of a well-rested Wall automatically make the Clippers a title contender in the West.
Meanwhile, young stars Jamal Murray and Ben Simmons will slide into lineups in Denver and Brooklyn that made the playoffs last season. Neither will be leaned on to lead their respective squads, but their returns are expected to help push their contending teams even further when the postseason comes around.
And all eyes will be on Zion Williamson this season. Williamson, who signed a five-year $193 million rookie max extension with the Pelicans this offseason, missed all of last season with a foot injury. The 22-year-old big man will be looking to shake the concerns over his durability and justify his selection as the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft, all while trying to lead New Orleans on a deep postseason run.
With the preseason underway, fans are getting their first look at a number of players stepping on the court for the first time in months. Our NBA insiders recap what they’ve observed this week.
Zion Williamson | New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson scored 13 points in 15 minutes on Tuesday night for the New Orleans Pelicans. Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports
Last time he played: May 4, 2021
What we saw: From the first play of the game, it was clear the Pelicans wanted to get Williamson involved. Off the opening tip, the Pelicans ran a play designed to get Williamson a touch and he was promptly swarmed by Chicago Bulls’ defenders. Williamson’s two biggest plays — perhaps the primary indicators that he was going to be the Williamson of old — came just a minute apart in the second quarter.
First, the play was called a defensive goaltending against Williamson but he showed off his athleticism as he chased down Patrick Williams on a layup attempt and swatted his shot. It showed Williamson’s bounce was back on that end of the floor. One minute later, Williamson caught the ball on the right wing, faced up, took one hard dribble with his right hand to blow by Williams and exploded for a two-handed slam. In 15 minutes, Williamson had 13 points and four rebounds. He was 4-of-6 from the field and 5-of-5 from the line. If his free throw percentage can climb this season (he’s shooting 68% for his career), Williamson can become even more dangerous this season.
— Andrew Lopez
Kawhi Leonard | LA Clippers
play0:23Kawhi drills vintage fadeaway jump shot
Kawhi Leonard already looks in midseason form, hitting his iconic fadeaway shot on the baseline for the Clippers.
Last time he played: June 14, 2021
What we saw: Leonard scored his first basket in 476 days on Monday, and it didn’t take long once he got on the court. He buried a 3 over Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic 15 seconds into his return.
But not everything came as easy in his first game back since tearing his right ACL in Game 4 against the Utah Jazz. Leonard shot 3-for-8, including that triple, and finished with 11 points, four rebounds and two assists in 16 first-half minutes.
“[The timing] is going to come,” Leonard said. “I am going to be rusty. Legs definitely felt healthy. A lot of lactic acid in them. But as that time goes on, the rhythm will get back, the footwork, the spacing, the timing. Just knowing playcalls, getting used to the crowd, getting used to T-Lue calling plays on the fly, my teammates yelling, the breathing, all that is going to come.”
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Leonard said he “definitely” got stronger after spending 13-plus months in the gym and he looks physically bigger. He certainly tried throwing that bulk around on a smaller player like Damian Lillard in the post, drawing fouls by muscling his way inside for four free throws. He also made some sharp passes to shooters in the corner. But he missed a few midrange shots, a driving attempt in traffic.
Leonard said he doesn’t play five-on-five or even two-on-two in the offseason so his first full run against players came in camp. Ty Lue said Leonard got a little tired offensively but that he got the shots he usually makes which is a good sign. With five days before the next preseason game, Leonard said he will play on Sunday and continue to work himself back into form. But the first test on Monday was a success. Leonard was back and his body felt good after the first game.
— Ohm Youngmisuk
Ben Simmons | Brooklyn Nets
Ben Simmons scored six points in 19 minutes against his former team, the Philadelphia 76ers. It was Simmons’ first NBA action in over a year. AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson
Last time he played: June 20, 2021
What we saw: Simmons appeared to move well up and down the floor almost a year and a half after his last NBA game. His length defensively is going to help a Nets team who is going to need him to be a difference maker on that end of the floor every night.
Offensively, it’s going to take some time for Simmons to find a rhythm alongside Brooklyn stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — but the glimpses of promise are already easy to see. The talented trio should be able to play well off each other, especially with Simmons running the point at times.
The issue for Simmons is that the same offensive issues that were apparent in Philadelphia haven’t seemed to change. He wasn’t looking for any kind of jump shot and he missed two free throw attempts. After the game, Simmons seemed to be enthused by his progression and his teammates can see the potential — especially when he gets some minutes at the five spot — but it’s going to be interesting to see if he becomes more aggressive on the offensive end throughout the season.
— Nick Friedell
John Wall | LA Clippers
Last time he played: April 23, 2021
What we saw: Wall had to wait a few more minutes before making his long-awaited return to the court after sitting out all of last season. Wall came off the bench behind Reggie Jackson and logged 14 minutes, finishing with five points and three assists. There wasn’t much opportunity to see Wall show if he still has that blazing speed and he very likely still has to work his way back into form.
Wall only played in 40 games while also dealing with the deaths of his mother and grandmother over the past three years. But Wall flashed glimpses of what he can bring to the Clippers in his return to the floor on Monday. He drove and hit center Moses Brown, who might’ve had an easy score at the rim but fumbled the pass. Wall also passed up on a corner 3 off a pass from a driving Norman Powell and decided to find Robert Covington for an open 3 at the top of the key. His only basket came on a 3 late in the first half.
Jackson said Wall still was aggressive and attacking in half-court play. The Clippers, though, didn’t get many opportunities to see Wall push the pace and run in the open floor. That is an element they hope Wall, who was once the fastest player in the league with the ball in his hands, can bring.
Lue’s team finished 19th in pace of play last season so they can use Wall’s tempo-pushing speed.
“I could have shown off [the speed] in the halfcourt,” Wall said when asked about not having many opportunities to run. “But I was just trying to run the sets and get used to being in the moment with certain guys but just trying to push the pace and keep the pace into the game. … It will all come to me, it’s all easy, like I know I still got the stuff I need but now I think for us it’s just trying to figure out different lineups.”
Lue says point guard is the only starting spot up for grabs between Jackson and Wall, but Wall will start the next preseason game on Sunday.
Damian Lillard | Portland Trail Blazers
Last time he played: Dec. 31, 2021
What we saw: Lillard played for the first time in 2022 after surgery to repair an abdominal injury, which he’d played through for years, ended his 2021-22 campaign on New Year’s Eve. Lillard took a while to get on the scoreboard but looked like his All-Star self thereafter.
Lillard missed his first four shots during Monday’s preseason game, but broke the drought with a 3-pointer in transition late in the first quarter and ended up as the evening’s leading scorer with 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting, in part because the Clippers’ starters did not return for the second half.
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“I didn’t have anything on my mind other than just playing,” Lillard said afterward. “I settled into the game pretty quickly.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Lillard’s return was how Portland coach Chauncey Billups deployed him. With Anfernee Simons now in the backcourt alongside Lillard, and newcomer Jerami Grant at forward, the Blazers have more ballhandling options. This lets Billups use Lillard in an off-ball role coming off screens.
One of Lillard’s highlight plays was an and-1 finish over former teammate Moses Brown. It came off an early screen to get him on the move toward the basket with an advantage over defender Amir Coffey.
— Kevin Pelton
Jamal Murray | Denver Nuggets
play0:46Jamal Murray scores his first bucket in 539 days
The entire Nuggets’ team celebrates with Jamal Murray as he scores his first bucket since suffering an ACL tear in 2021.
Last time he played: April 4, 2021
What we saw: If anyone wondered if Murray had been counting the days until he could make his return to the court, don’t worry, he was. Prior to his preseason debut on Monday night, Murray tweeted “539 days later… BOUT THAT TIME!!”
It’s rare when you see the entire bench stand up for a shot in a preseason game, but that’s exactly what happened for Murray’s first make. Murray missed his first two shots, a step-back 18-footer and a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, but the third one was the charm. Murray spotted up in the left corner and after it went in, the smile across his face and his teammates told the whole story. He was happy to be back.
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His next shot showed more about being back than anything else. This one was about trusting the surgically-repaired ACL in his left knee. Murray went one-on-one with Thunder defender Tre Mann. Murray drove baseline, was forced back, took a hard dribble into Mann’s chest, gave a small shot fake, then leapt up for a small floater in the lane with contact.
To cap off his short night of 10 points in 14 minutes, Murray ended the second half with a crowd pleaser as hit a fadeaway jumper off the left leg. At the end of it, Murray looked at the crowd and said, “That’s what I do.”
James Wiseman | Golden State Warriors
Last time he played: April 10, 2021
What we saw: When the Warriors left for Tokyo last week, it had been about a year and a half since Wiseman had played in an NBA game. Wiseman made his preseason debut Sept. 30 in a sold-out Saitama Super Arena in Japan and had a performance that warranted coach Steve Kerr calling him the “player of the game.”
Kerr noted that Wiseman simply has a better feel for the NBA game now than he did just several years ago despite not playing, and that comfort level was evident in his 20-point performance.
Wiseman finished the night on 8-of-11 shooting — five of which were dunks. And that provides an accurate look at how the Warriors want to use him: at and above the rim. Before his injury, Wiseman often looked overwhelmed and lost in the Warriors’ free-flowing, fast-moving system.
This season, the Warriors are emphasizing a simplified role for Wiseman centered around finishing at the rim and crashing the boards. Wiseman’s first game showed how well he can move for a guy his size, so as his comfort level with the Warriors’ system improves, he should fit nicely.
— Kendra Andrews
Michael Porter Jr. | Denver Nuggets
Last time he played: Nov. 6, 2021
What we saw: In 2021-22, Porter Jr. didn’t look like the player he was the season prior as a back injury limited him to just nine games. He didn’t look like someone bothered by anything in Denver’s preseason opener.
Porter played just 14 minutes but it was enough to see a healthy-looking wing that could help lift the Nuggets. Porter was an efficient 5-of-7, scoring 12 points and knocking down all three of his attempts inside the perimeter with a mix of face-up jumper, a dunk and a step-back from along the baseline. He showed confidence towards the end of the second quarter, knocking down both 3-pointers, including stepping into one in a two-for-one situation late in the half.
During his rookie season, Porter was one of the better rebounding wings in the league and his one rebound on Monday showed why. Jamal Murray missed a shot in the lane and Porter dove in from his spot in the corner and managed to snag the board between four Thunder defenders.
He lost the ball in the scrum to Josh Giddey but Denver still ended up with possession after it deflected off Giddey and went out of bounds. However, Porter using that aggressiveness to his advantage is a good sign for Denver moving forward.
Kendrick Nunn | Los Angeles Lakers
Last time he played: Oct. 10, 2021
What we saw: Just more than a minute into Nunn’s first NBA game action in 358 days, the Los Angeles Lakers guard relied on a guy he’s known for years to set him up. Nunn drove the left lane and hit Anthony Davis with a pocket pass at the elbow. Davis collected the feed and started his shooting motion before zipping a pass back to Nunn, who spotted up for a corner 3.
Nunn, who appeared in four preseason games for the Lakers last fall before missing the entire season with a bone bruise in his right knee, made the shot with ease.
“It’s that Chicago connection. He was able to knock it down,” Davis said, alluding to their shared Windy City roots. “I think we’re all proud. He came a long ways. And to play with that rhythm and to make your first shot kind of takes away the butterflies, especially here … and everybody anticipating, ‘We want to see K-Nunn.'”
New Lakers coach Darvin Ham saw enough of Nunn’s dedication to training in the offseason and shot-making during training camp to make him the starting shooting guard for the preseason opener. That role could change when Lonnie Walker IV’s ankle fully heals and Dennis Schroder reports to the team, as Ham said his starters are “totally fluid” with the regular-season opener two weeks away, but Nunn figures to be a factor whether he’s starting or not.
“It felt real good,” Nunn said after going 2-for-2 in the first quarter and helping L.A.’s starters outscore the Sacramento Kings by five points in the six minutes he was on the court. “I’m getting my legs back under me, my speed, my strength. I felt real good out there.”
— Dave McMenamin